I’ve heard more than one manager suggest we should wait until 10 games have been played before taking much notice of the Premier League table. Well, after round 9 and with almost a quarter of the season gone, now is as good a time as any to take stock.
Roy Hodgson was one of the managers who intimated that the league table would be legitimate enough to stand trial by once the games played column had ticked over into double figures. With that deadline fast approaching and Liverpool still in the bottom three, he will be hoping that his club’s new owners do not make him eat his words.
Undoubtedly, it is a more accurate opportunity to assess the standings than when Liverpool’s leader first made his remarks, but with the vast majority of the season still to run, just how much can we ascertain after the first sector split of this Premier League lap?
There is certainly a familiar feel towards the summit of the table. Last year’s champions, Chelsea, sit proudly on top of the pile and are immediately chased by the four sides that finished in closest proximity to them last year.
Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, and Tottenham occupy slots two to five and look to be the candidates best equipped to halt Chelsea’s imperious start.
It is relatively safe to assume that these five sides will end the season in a position reflective of where they currently lie. With the quality of players at their disposal and a very recent history of staying the course over a 38 game stretch, it is hard to imagine that these adversaries will finish far from the European places.
However, even amongst this gaggle of title chasers it is difficult to make confident predictions after so few matches have been played. If anything, the opening exchanges have thrown up more questions than answers regarding the credentials of these contenders.
OK, so there is little in Chelsea’s initial fixtures to suggest they are not capable of repeating last year’s title winning feat. They have set the benchmark with their opening performances and have shown consistency and a merciless streak that marks them out as the team to beat.
However, the other contenders have not always looked as assured. Arsenal have played most of their games with all the charisma we expect from an Arsene Wenger side, but there are signs that a brittleness remains in the heart of their defence that continues to undermine their championship push.
Sunday’s impressive win over fellow challengers Manchester City confirms they have the pure football ability to compete with the big spenders of the league, but their title tilt will depend on whether they can eradicate the type of defensive performance produced against West Bromwich Albion at the Emirates Stadium in September. It remains to be seen if they can.
Elsewhere, Manchester United have begun the season in rather unfamiliar fashion. The killer instinct that has been the trademark of the Alex Ferguson era has been absent on a number of occasions this season, highlighted emphatically by their injury time capitulation against Everton and home draw against Arsenal’s conquerors, West Brom.
Those who have written Fergie’s troops off in the past have often been made to look foolish and one would expect Manchester’s red corner to cast aside this uncharacteristic vulnerability and reinvigorate their pursuit of Chelsea.
But with media scrutiny continuing to engulf Old Trafford, a misfiring striker yet to emerge from a seven month slump and an over reliance on the elder statesmen of the squad, there is just a hint of uncertainty over whether United will offer the type of challenge they have become synonymous with over the last two decades.
Not least because Manchester’s blue candidates now have a squad that appears capable of mixing it with the Premier League’s elite. In contrast to the way they assembled their star-studded squad over the summer, Manchester City have been unassuming in the way they have gone about their business on the pitch.
Early season form that includes victory over Chelsea promises a challenge of sorts from Mancini’s men, but it is impossible to tell at this juncture whether they have the experience and staying power to maintain a challenge deep into 2011.
In the same respect, after such a wonderful season last year, do Spurs have it in them to sustain their threat once again? The early influence of Rafael Van der Vaart suggests they are more likely to than not and their emergence as a top four challenger makes any Champions League predictions at this stage purely speculative.
As if the top end of the table is difficult to unpick just now, the league below is an even greater minefield of uncertainty.
All credit must go to Roberto Di Matteo and his boys for the way they bounced back from a 6-0 hiding at Stamford Bridge on the opening day of the season. The Black Country tribe have played in a fantastically entertaining spirit so far this season and their fans have every right to enjoy the lofty heights of 6th place in which they currently reside.
But with just 6 points dividing 5th and 18th place and only one victory keeping 7th place Sunderland ahead of the relegation dwellers, the Premier League is currently a tightly knit pack of instability.
The reality is that current league positions are largely irrelevant – had 8th placed Newcastle lost at West Ham on Saturday they would currently be sat in the bottom three.
With 15 points from nine games, West Brom are closer to the relegation zone than they are the league leaders and the priority for the club remains survival. Burnley had the same amount of points having played only two more games last year and were relegated by 5 points.
In response to Roy’s remarks, after (nearly) 10 games of the season all we really know is the pre-season favourites for the Champions League spots will challenge for the Champions League spots. Who knows, the big boys may still be joined in a scrap for Europe by West Brom. Or even 18th placed Liverpool. We will probably know a bit more after 38 games.